COMMENT An assault on hope in Pakistan
By Maliha Masood
I was beginning to think that Pakistan was finally on its way to improving its dismal public image. The recent national elections, bloody and chaotic as usual, at least had the effect of reenergizing the country on the domestic front and the global stage. Social media played a big role with one of the candidates, Imran Khan, former cricket star turned politician, trending on Twitter. Campaign t-shirts were being sold on the Internet. Naya Pakistan was the catchall slogan. New Pakistan. Well, folks, I guess we were too optimistic.
The recent terrorist attack on a group of foreign tourists in the country's remote mountainous region spells disaster for Pakistan, dismantling investor confidence, crippling the country's fragile
tourist industry and announcing to the world loud and clear that Pakistan has nothing to offer except for danger and violence. What's different about this incident is that happened in a region that was considered one of the safer parts of Pakistan and it was directed at outsiders, people who had spent considerable time and expense to come to Pakistan in order to have a good time.
I was one of those people 10 years ago when I traveled back to Pakistan to see what remained of my homeland beyond headlines and stereotypes. I remember riding in a Winnebago on the Karakoram Highway with its sinuous twists and turns and sitting in the front seat next to the driver and how he had poked me in the ribs with his elbow when we got closer to Nanga Parbat, the very mountain where the tourist attack occurred. I remember taking pictures of that craggy snow capped giant where fairies are said to roam on the summit. I remember saying its name out loud and hearing the soft cadences of the Urdu words. Nanga Parbat. Naked Mountain.
It was hard to believe such stupendous natural beauty could exist in a country like Pakistan. Growing up in Karachi, I was a diehard city girl accustomed to traffic choked streets and bazaars reeking of human sweat and overflowing with merchandise. My closest brush with nature was riding camels on the beach. So it was a huge stroke of luck to find myself, 30 years later, gallivanting in the pristine wilderness of Northern Pakistan. It's not an easy place to go, certainly not for a lone female vagabond. But I had been persistent and refused to be deterred by the obvious hazards I was warned about time and again. Road bandits. Highway robbery. Gang rape. Mad men with guns. All this was to be taken into consideration if one wanted to travel in Pakistan.
I was fortunate in that I managed to travel quite freely throughout Pakistan. Even in areas deemed off limits to foreigners such as the Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan where most of the danger was brewing. The more I traveled, the more I began to see elements within Pakistani culture and society that were not known in the West. I wanted to break as many stereotypes as possible. And I started with myself. Practicing Muslim. Pakistani born. Free spirited American. People found it hard to reconcile all three identities in one person. I was just as hard pressed to make sense of the underground rave party in Karachi awash with booze and drugs. I didn't know what to make of the runway models baring midriffs and bare backs during Fashion Week. Girls with names like Nabila and Samina sporting some of the sexiest faces on earth.
There had been a State Department Travel Advisory against Pakistan at the time of my visit in 2003. It's still active a decade later. The shock waves resulting from of this latest terrorist attack are bound to destroy what little chance Pakistan had of improving its public image. The poster child of terror and violence it shall remain. I doubt I will ever see the words travel and Pakistan used in the same sentence. Not in my lifetime.
One question that needs to be asked, simple as it sounds, is why. Why is it that a country so rich in history and culture will not get to show this side to outsiders? Why is a country of 200 million strong being held hostage by a minority of evil minded anarchists? When will Pakistan ever be free from the clutches of US foreign policy? The attackers freely admitted their heinous crime was retaliation against American drone strikes on Pakistani soil. The Americans argue that drone have to be employed to nab the bad guys. If there are drones, there will be casualties. Innocent civilians will die. So will foreign tourists.
So how do we get around this vicious cycle? By attack and counter attack? Is the United States entirely blameless in this sordid affair? Will Pakistan forever be regarded as the world's foremost terror den?
How times have changed. Back in the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration championed the Musical Ambassadors project as a foreign policy tool in Pakistan. The Cold War was on and the Americans and Soviets were competing for turf to see who could put on the best show in town. While the Russians brought trapeze artists and ballet troupes, the Americans brought Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and The Duke Ellington Band. This influenced a whole generation of Pakistanis accustomed to Western pop culture and enamored with jazz and big band music. My father was one of them. He attended Dizzy Gillespie's 1956 concert at the Palace Cinema in Karachi. And he still recalls the day as though it were yesterday. The mad rush to secure tickets. The impromptu jam session when one of the audience members jumped on stage to play with the band. Dizzy's signature trumpet with its bent bell.
I would not grow up to see this version of Pakistan. Cool and cosmopolitan. A French Riviera by the Arabian Sea. My father's Karachi was long gone. And the country I went back to after all these years of exile was no longer mine. And yet it is such a big part of me. I long for the day when I can speak of Pakistan without being ashamed of it. With pride, rather than embarrassment. And I long for people to know that it wasn't always this way. That a country we now associate with terrorism and violence used to be on the touring list for American jazz musicians. Instead of drones, the Americans employed music to foster cultural harmony. How times have changed.
Maliha Masood is the author of Dizzy in Karachi: A Journey to Pakistan. She resides in Seattle, WA. More info at www.dizzyinkarachi.com